How a Mennonite volunteer group could jumpstart Lytton's recovery
A non-profit will create camps to house volunteers in Lytton as multiple home builds plotted
The Mennonites are coming to Lytton.
When homes finally start going up in Lytton, one of the very first may be constructed by an international organization with the ability to call on an army of volunteers.
For a remote, destroyed village with few local resources and a much-delayed recovery, it could end up being a match made in heaven.
The Mennonite Disaster Service is a large, US-based organization with a Canadian branch that has endless experience providing assistance to communities following disasters.
While some organizations like Red Cross specialize in delivering services, help, and aid in the hours and days after a disaster, MDS has a specific focus on helping rebuild or restore homes after calamitous events. Imagine Habitat for Humanity, but with a post-disaster focus on rebuilding or replacing homes that have been lost. (There are a couple similar organizations that provide such services, including Samaritan’s Purse, which was heavily involved in the Sumas Prairie recovery. MDS has also collaborated with the Red Cross in the past.)
MDS has provided relief around British Columbia in recent years, with volunteers working in the Fraser Valley and Princeton following the 2021 floods, and in Monte Lake, following the 2021 wildfire there. It is currently wrapping up its biggest project—the restoration of 40-odd homes on Cape Breton Island following a hurricane there.
The rebuilding of Lytton has yet to begin, thanks to an array of hurdles, both manmade and natural. Now as land is finally cleared and prepared for rebuilding, the organization is turning its eyes on Lytton. Its initial plans are small—to build just a single house. But MDS may be particularly well-suited to help finally jumpstart a rebuild that has faced an array of challenges over the last two years.
The organization uses all-volunteer labourers and tradespeople to help rebuild homes for seniors, low-income families, and others who are in need.
The lack of local workers has been one of many issues stalling recovery progress for more than two years. Crucially, MDS has the ability to house those volunteer workers on site—a useful ability given Lytton’s remote location and its destroyed hotels and community spaces.
The organization’s Cape Breton work, Mennonite Disaster Service communications chief John Longhurst noted, has involved 500 volunteers who have flocked to an area “about as far as you can get” from where most Mennonites live.
“We have a very generous pool of volunteers who donate their time after a disaster,” he said.
Those people, he said, are united in the desire to be simple Good Samaritans.
“Someone is in need and you don't ask questions, you come along to help,” he said.
But there are other factors driving MDS’s volunteer core too; many are retired and searching for new experiences in new places, Longhurst said.
The volunteers also, fortunately, don’t have high standards for living accommodations.
Lytton’s hotels burned down in the fire. But while establishing temporary accommodations for residents has thus far defied the abilities of the Village of Lytton and provincial government, Longhurst said that shouldn’t be a problem. MDS often turns to churches, halls, or any other space to create bunking areas for workers, and while such spaces are rare, the organization also has facilities—including bunk trailers and shower trailers—that enable it to create camps for volunteers.
MDS is starting small and not overpromising or overpromoting.
“Our current plan is to do one house and to see how it goes,” Longhurst said, when reached by telephone. “Once we get that final approval and have the house plans ready to go ... then we hope to build one home.”
But the organization expects that first home—and its first work camp—just to be the start.
Lytton council was told in late August that the organization wants to build a bigger camp in the spring to house volunteers who will build even more homes.
The organization will be holding an information meeting for residents in September to gauge interest in their free-home-building services.
Longhurst says it selects recipients for its aid based on need.
“The people we work with tend to not have much with financial resources,” he said. (Seniors and low-income families are frequent recipients, and the recipient’s faith doesn’t play a factor, he said.)
Even for an organization like MDS, Lytton will mark a new experience and challenge.
The last two years suggest that building in Lytton may require dealing with the legacy of contaminated soil, potential archeological finds, human resource challenges, labour availability, and the weather. It’s possible that all will go smoothly—no homes have been rebuilt yet so it’s hard to say.
Whatever the case, Longhurst said they’ll have to learn on the go—like everyone else trying to rebuild Lytton.
The first home, he said, is a test case.
“We’ve not done anything like this in a town that is completely destroyed.”
But MDS, just like the rebuilding of Lytton, has to start somewhere.